Modern Versus Classic Philately - Just As Interesting If You Know What To Look At

I have now completed two series of posts that describe all aspects of two relatively modern Canadian definitive issues, that have until very recently been thought to contain relatively little to interest a specialist: The Karsh Issue of 1953-1967 and the Wilding Issue of 1954-1967. When I was a boy, there were almost no detailed catalogue listings of either issue, and even today, the Karsh Issue has almost no listed varieties. However, as my posts demonstrate, these two issues are hardly straightforward, and have much to keep a devoted specialist busy for an entire lifetime. So why, after such a long time, are these issues still largely neglected?

There are several reasons, but I think the main one is that there is a strong bias in the hobby to dismiss any variety that is not either very obvious, or from the classic period as being little more than random variation. Indeed, within the professional circles of philately, there is a strong bias against the serious study and collection of stamps issued after World War II, dismissing them as nothing more than discount postage. Pretty well all of the professional attention in philately, especially at the exhibition level is directed towards the classic period. For Canada, the definition of the boundary between the classic and modern period has shifted with the passage of time. When I was a boy, it was the end of the Small Queen period and now it is the end of the Admiral period.

So why is there this tendency to dismiss the modern material? Part of it has to do with its availability: the stamps of issues like the Karsh and Wildings are widely available in almost perfect condition. I will say though, that they are noticeably less common than they were back in the 1980's, as usage on mail by stamp dealers has had its impact. Another reason is that classic philately has created a set of expectations and beliefs in collectors about what is considered significant and collectible, and these beliefs and expectations are slow to evolve. I'll explain further what I mean.

Most collectible varieties of the classic period result from the inherent technological limitations of the time in which the stamps were printed, such as:

  • Major and minor shade varieties
  • Major and minor re-entries
  • Differences in paper thickness
  • Plate flaws
Others are the result of deliberate variations in the production process:

  • Differences in perforation measurement result from different perforation machines
  • Wet and dry printings result from differences in the printing process
  • Flat plate and rotary press printings result from different types of printing presses
  • Watermarks
Not all of these were considered significant by philatelists at the time the related stamps came out, but the most obvious ones were recognized almost immediately. Slowly over time, as the classic issues have become more and more popular, collectors have begun paying closer and closer attention to them so that less obvious varieties like minor re-entries, minor shade variations and minor differences in perforation measurement are now receiving attention, whereas they were largely ignored for most of the last 100 years. 

What do all of these varieties have in common? The answer is that all of them can be identified with tools that collectors are highly familiar with: a good magnifying glass, a perforation gauge, and a watermark tray. Furthermore, they can all be seen with the naked eye in normal spectrum light. This has created the expectation among collectors in general that in order to be significant, a variation must be objectively identifiable and with relative ease using tools that are readily available. 

So the major issues contributing to the lack of popularity of these issues is:

  • A belief that they are too common to represent a worthy challenge.
  • A belief that there is little about them to warrant study.
The issue of availability is an interesting one because it illustrates a fact about the human condition that has implications for the past and future scarcity of this material. Humans generally do not appreciate that which is abundant. The interesting thing is that there are very few stamps today that were scarce right from the start. The 12d black of issued in 1851 is one example of a stamp that was always rare. Most issues that are very popular today were not considered to be particularly special or beautiful at the time they were current because they were readily available, and because their aesthetic was the norm for the time. I've heard from one long since deceased philatelist that in 1954 you could still buy the $1 Admiral of 1923 at the post office. Given that I can buy the 1997 $8 Grizzly Bear definitives at my local post office, I can certainly believe this old man's story to be true. Another story involves the father of Official stamps, Roy Wrigley. He was a boy when the Small Queens were current in the 1890's. He tells of a time when a relative gave him dozens of 5c Large Queen stamps that had been saved from mail clippings. These stamps today have a minimum value of $50 each most likely. What did Wrigley do with them as a young lad? He traded them for Seebeck issues of Latin America - beautiful but worthless in comparison. I tell  this story here to illustrate the fact that Wrigley's attitude toward the Large Queen stamps at that time was the same as many collectors and dealers attitudes toward modern material are. 

It is worth remembering too that scarcity is a function of demand. Admirals and Small Queens today are probably no scarcer in absolute terms than they were 50 years ago. A small percentage of the material that was in existence in 1965 may have been lost through mishandling, destruction etc. But for the most part, collectors are a very careful lot and hate to throw away even damaged stamps. So most of the material that existed back then is still with us today. The reason why the material is expensive (even in used condition it is expensive if you are buying it in quantity) today is because there are so many collectors who specialize in this material. So all it will really take to make the modern issues as scarce will be an upsurge in demand. This is also the case, as print quantities of stamps have been declining over time. Although the issue quantities of the stamps from these two issues may seem astronomical, being in the hundreds of millions for the low values, they are much lower than the issue quantities of the Small Queens and Admirals which numbered in the 2-3 billion range for the values 3c and under. 

In terms of finding interesting varieties to study, the problem with modern philately is that there is much more precision inherent in the technology of the printing process than there was in the classic period:

  • Inks are mixed by machines and now by computers using formulas and exact measurements resulting in very little variation in shade. 
  • Watermarks are no longer used because other security measures to prevent counterfeiting have superseded them.
  • Engraving is no longer the main method of printing, whereas photogravure is. 
What this uniformity does mean though is that any variation in shade, even if relatively minor by classic standards, may actually be very significant because it is so uncommon. 

The push during the classic period was to find a way to cut the cost of printing stamps and to find more efficient ways to print large numbers of stamps as the demand for stamps at the turn of the century exploded. This is the main reason why photogravure is now the printing method of choice rather than engraving - it is much less expensive. Initially printing was engraving, done on damp sheets which were dried out and gummed. Then the efficiencies of printing on pre-gummed, dry paper were discovered during the Admiral period, which is why we have the change from wet to dry printing. Before the Admiral period, printing was done on steel plates that wore and had to be continually re-entered. By the end of the Admiral period, printing was done on chromium-nickel plated steel plates, which did not wear the way the earlier ones did. This is the reason why re-entries almost entirely disappear after the Admiral period. 

The push during the modern period after 1950 was to figure out how to save labour costs in the mail sorting and cancelling process, as well as speed the process since the volume of mail had become so much larger. This has led post offices from all over the world to develop machinery that was designed to detect the stamps on the envelopes, be able to differentiate whether or not they were first class or lower class rates and to both sort and cancel the mail accordingly. In order to work the way they were designed to, a way had to be devised for the machines to detect the stamps. This led postal administrations all over the world to experiment with fluorescent or phosphorescent inks, or tagging that would react with either short wave or long-wave ultraviolet light as follows:

  • The US has employed an overall phosphorescent coating on their stamps that glows bright yellow under long wave UV and either green or orange I believe under short wave UV.
  • Great Britain experimented with graphite lines in the late 1950's before adopting phosphor bands in 1959. These only react to the more dangerous short wave UV and initially they glowed green, then blue and now violet. 
  • Australia experimented with helecon coating in the 1950's and 1960's as well as adding helecon to inks. Helecon is a zinc-sulfide related substance that glows orange under long wave UV light. I believe that in the 1970's to the 1990's helecon was added to the papers and now they use an overall fluorescent coating.
  • Nearly all the Western European countries have some kind of fluorescent coating on their stamps that was the subject of experimentation in the 1960's. 
  • We introduced Winnipeg tagging in 1962 that glowed bluish white under long-wave UV. This was abandoned in favour of Ottawa tagging in 1972, which glows bright green or greenish yellow. In addition some of our stamps that were printed in Australia have either a yellow or orange fluorescent coating. 
So the most major point of interest in modern philately is also the one that is least understood and consequently ignored by collectors: the subject of tagging and paper fluorescence. Paper fluorescence is a significant topic because while all this experimentation was going on with mail sorting, paper recycling was becoming prevalent and the recycling process was producing envelope papers that were brighter under UV than the tagging on the stamps, making it impossible for the sorting machines to do their job. So these problems sparked a lot of experimentation in papers that would not interfere with the tagging. 

Finally, the transition from more costly engraving to modern photogravure was made during the 1960's and this introduced a whole series of other problems in terms of the paper that could be used. papers had to be developed that could accept a wide range of inks and which could also absorb cancellation inks. All of these papers had to be developed in such a way that the tagging on the stamps would still be visible to the sorting machines. 

Consequently, while a perforation gauge is still an important tool, it is not the most important tool of modern philately. The most important tool is this:

A long wave ultraviolet lamp. Many collectors have shied away from using these for a number of reasons:

  • They are too expensive
  • A belief that they are dangerous to the eyes
  • A belief that paper fluorescence is too difficult, subjective and confusing to study
It is true that the hobby suppliers like Lighthouse and Uni-Safe charge quite a bit for their deluxe models of UV lamp. There are cheap, hand held, battery operated models, but I find the quality of the light to be so weak from them that they can only really be used in a dark room. The model I have shown above is cheap - mine cost me less than $20 and has paid for itself hundreds of times over in terms of what it has revealed for me. You can buy these at most party supply stores or specialty lighting stores. 

Short wave UV is extremely dangerous to the eyes, which is why these lamps come with eye shields and boxes that shield your eyes from the light. Long-wave UV is not dangerous though. 

As for the subjectivity and complexity, my response would be that yes it is a complex area and there is some subjectivity involved, but no more really than would be involved in the study of shades, or papers on classic stamps. 

So I believe that the key to recognizing the potential of modern philately is to recognize that one has to look at different aspects of the stamps using different tools than one is accustomed to using on classic stamps. I'd be interested to know your thoughts on this topic. 


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